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Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

From the Water to the Water

Oh, to be a university president these days. What struggle. What drama! Having to go in front of congress and answer questions about whether or not antisemitic phrases are antisemitic or not. This week’s hearing from Columbia president “Minouche” Shafik was remarkably better than the previous one, and she managed to summon enough moral clarity to identify that calling for the genocide of Jewish people was, in fact, hate speech. Where she paused, however, was in the question of whether the now-common phrase, “from the river to the sea” is antisemitic. Initially, she said no — in that some people hear it as antisemitic, and others hear it as aspirational. She eventually came around and said that it was antisemitic. But perhaps this is just the most salient example of “west-splaining”— wherein Western scholars and people translate things in Arabic in a softer or gentler way. Case in point, a recent reinterpretation of the phrase “jihad” — which literally Islamic fundamentalists use to describe their holy war — as “aspirational” and “peaceful.” Okay. But perhaps we need to actually look at what this means, both historically and now — because, my dear Dr. Shafik, its intent isn’t really up for debate. 

I recently looked up the Arabic version of “from the river to the sea,” and was met immediately with the Wikipedia definition, which says that it has a focus on freedom. Well, maybe. In Arabic, the rhyming couplet is min ah-nahr ila l-bahr/ Filastin sa-tataharrar. This is a relatively new statement, however. The original version of the slogan in Arabic is min el-mayeh lil-mayeh, Filastin Arabiyeh, or, from the water to the water, an Arab Palestine. Perhaps less a clarion call for freedom, but certainly more in line with what the statement actually means, no matter what nonsense Rashida Tlaib spouts from her pulpit. And to see the truth of this, one really only has to look to history. 

Taken in Toronto, October 23rd, 2023.

Islam is a religion born of the Judaic tradition; indeed, they have much in common. The fact that it was literally built on the original Jewish scriptures is potentially also reflected in the fact that the Islamic Dome of the Rock is literally built on the ruins of the Second Temple (and, prior to that, the First). Despite this, a newly fashionable statement is to declare that the Jewish people have no historical or contemporary right to the Land of Israel — which is straight up nonsense. There’s a very basic reality that when scholars dig in the Land of Israel, they find Hebrew Scriptures, coins, pomegranate figurines etc. Of course, both peoples have some claim to the land, which is why it’s such an intractable conflict. When Jews were being forced out of Europe and Arab lands, they came to reclaim this ancient tradition in their ancestral homeland — having been shouted at for centuries to go back there. But despite much of the current narrative being about Israelis coming in and stealing land, that history is far more complicated, and presents Palestinians in far from the “innocent, naive, indigenous, agency-less” light than they are often seen in today. 

Jews began to settle in the north of Israel, having bought vast tracts of land from Arab landlords. There they turned swampland into orange groves. In 1920, the first act of violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict happened, when Arab villagers stormed a Kibbutz, Tel Hai, killing dozens. Shortly thereafter, there was a set of riots that killed many Jews. These riots and violence continued. In 1937, the British started to realize that there was no way these two peoples could live on the same land in peace, as they had no common aspirations. They argued that the instigators of the violence were the Arabs, and that they had been spurred to violence by Arab leadership who shouted fabricated Jewish conspiracies to destroy Islamic holy sites etc. During the so-called Peel Commission (this fact-finding mission about the future of Palestine), the leader of the Palestinian Arabs, the so-called “Mufti” testified that if and when Palestine became a fully independent Arab state (which had, to that point, never existed in history), he could offer no concrete plans for the 400,000 Jews who lived there. When questioned further, he admitted that they could not assimilate the population and that they would be removed. Ominously, he gave a vague description of this intention, with “we must leave all that to the future.” In 1942, he sent a letter to the Foreign Minister of Hungary, advising that Hungary ship all of their Jews to Poland — where, of course, they were being killed in droves. So, fairly sure that we all know what he meant. Needless to say, the British concluded that living together was impossible, and contemplated a partition, wherein Arabs got almost all of the land, and Jews were given a small section in the North, near the Lebanese border. The Jews accepted. The Arabs did not. 

Fast-forward ten years. After World War Two and the Holocaust, the UN voted to formally partition the land. This time, the Jewish community was given more than a tiny state, instead being given some 40% of the land. The Jews, again, said yes to this partitioned state. While much is made of Jews attempting to get to Jerusalem during this time period, the day after the partition vote, mass anti-Jewish violence began. The Arabs refused to declare their state, instead banking on the combined Arab armies “sweeping them into the sea.” When this failed, the Jewish state remained — and the Arab state was taken by Jordan and Egypt. During this time, what has now become known as the “Naqba” happened — the description of 750,000 Palestinians leaving their homes. While it’s become commonplace to blame Israel entirely for this at this point, the majority left because their own leaders told them to do so. Don’t take my word for it, take the Prime Minister of Syria’s. While people love to harp on about this, and yes, the living conditions of most Palestinians is horrifying — particularly now –,  those same people often ignore the 800,000 Jews who were forcibly removed from Arab lands at the same time. 

After many wars, the peace process finally began. But every single time, every peace plan, every partition, was rejected fully by Palestinian leadership. So, when people talk about why Palestinians don’t have a state, that’s a big part of the reason why. In 2000, in 2008, in 2016 — over and over again, a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank (with land and population transfers of some kind) has been proposed, and always turned down. Always based on the right of return — something that Palestinians believe that they have, that no other refugee does — including the 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands and all of their descendants. But what does this really mean? It means the dissolution of the Jewish state. Were all 5-7 million “refugees” that UNRWA supports to return to Israel, demographically, it would cease to be Jewish. Which, honestly, is probably the dream. 

There has never been any willingness to partition and share the land on behalf of the Palestinian people — or at least their leadership. Hamas, who now claims to represent Palestinian interests, has always maintained that the destruction of the Jewish state is their number one goal. And let’s remember that if an election were to take place in the West Bank tomorrow, Hamas would win. Maybe we finally need to start listening to what is actually being said and done, without a Western lens. “From the River to the Sea” or “From the Water to the Water” betrays a fundamental reality about the so-called legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. Partition has never been okay. It’s never been enough. Sharing has never been acceptable, in 1916, in 1920, in 1937, in 1947, in 1967, in 2000, in 2006, in 2008, in 2016, today. So when Rashida Tlaib and her ilk spout from their pulpit that it’s an “aspirational” call for peace, what in the history of this conflict makes people believe that? Is it as “peaceful” as “globalize the intifada” and the red hands that depict the blood of Jews being celebrated?

Today, the US House of Representatives declared that the phrase is to be considered hate speech. I’m sure that for many of the people who love to shout it, this is just another example of nefarious Jewish control. But at no point has Palestinian leadership been willing to compromise on land or the Right of Return. When they say from the river to the sea, historically, it has always meant that. From the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, it should all be Arab. And that inescapably means that the 9 million Jews who also live between these two bodies of water are to be expelled or killed. You cannot get around that fact. And you know what they say about people? If someone shows you who they really are, you should believe them. 

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works at TanenbaumCHAT as a Jewish history teacher.
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